Liz Larner would be better known if her timing had been sharper: Earmarked for L.A. art stardom in the late ‘80s, she was just hitting her stride as the market crashed the time before this one. Although included in MOCA’s high-profile 1992 Zeitgeist-minting ”Helter Skelter“ exhibition, her piece, Forced Perspective, was somewhat less than compelling. Especially so after the high excellence of her best-known work to that point — 1988‘s Corner Basher, a mechanized mini–wreckingtether ball that wailed away on the intersecting planes of the gallery walls.

Between ”Helter Skelter“ and Larner’s midcareer survey at MOCA, she has had just one L.A. solo exhibition, throwing her lot in with her bad-boy confreres by showing regularly only in New York and Europe. The fact that she was a girl, and not particularly bad, undoubtedly had a negative impact on her career, but also allowed her to find new life in seemingly exhausted areas of formalist sculpture making, a vantage point that evolved from an undidactic feminist challenge to the supposed pure aesthetic principles Modernism had ”discovered.“

The solidity of the object (particularly the cube), the truth to one‘s materials, the contempt for color and pedestals — all these sacred cows had been barbecued in the decades preceding Larner’s emergence, but usually in a dried-up illustrational manner. Larner‘s job was to fold these objections back into the formal vocabulary of object making, but it took her a few years to embrace this mission fully.

Many earlier pieces on view at MOCA hedge their bets. 1989’s Bird in Space transfigures Brancusi‘s shiny dingus into an evanescent string-art hammock, using silk and nylon textiles to delineate the structural schematics of an equally graceful form, and extend that structural analysis into the space that contains it. The elegance and austerity of this work set up one of two major themes that define Larner’s oeuvre: allusion to scientific methods and models.

The other strain is passionate formalism. While many of the works here (particularly the chain pieces) verge on parodies of the minimalistconceptualist compulsion to purge the seductive, pleasure is never far from the surface. At times, the artist seems to wallow in it, as in 1991‘s Corridor RedGreen, which corsets a ribcage-worth of wobbly Anthony Caro–esque farm-machinery protuberances in a glittery patchwork of crimson brocade, and suspends the lime-green skin of a flayed Martian cow from an ingeniously foregrounded structure of wires and color-coordinated weighted sacks.

Most of Larner’s sculptures straddle a tongue-in-cheek pseudoscientific methodology alongside this explicit formalism — most blatantly in early work such as the wryly titled Cultures series, which used a deliberately debased form of early-‘70s chemistry-set conceptualism to generate exquisite circular color-fields from narrative-laden ingredients such as orchids, heroin, and swabs from the door of NATO headquarters. Similarly, 1987’s Used To Do the Job, a gorgeously Arte Povera wax cube, encases the chemical agents necessary for creating a bronze sculpture, then blowing it up.

In later work, the extraneous content falls away as Larner learns to merge the focused structural interrogation of the stainless-steel chain Wrapped Corner (1991) with the flamboyant colorist, compositional and kinesthetic facility of the Corridors. In a series of works that resemble mounds of Indian desserts, or models of protein from some MIT research lab, Larner orchestrates mostly empty space into subtle variations of established abstract sculptural geometries. Partially dematerialized, as if some older sculpture had passed through a filter removing four out of every five atoms, these pieces unveil loopy potential pathways through their overall form, while their accumulation of tiny overlapping units seems bent on violating the physical dictum prohibiting two objects from occupying the same space.

This perversity is made monumental in Untitled (2001), which greets the viewer in the first gallery. Resembling a gigantic Christmas decoration, the lurid, monstrous polyhedron was obviously composed on a computer, and looks as if the artist has smooshed outsize models of her TV, iMac, microwave and toaster oven impossibly into identical spatial coordinates. Its opaque, pearlescent, purplish surface marks a distinct departure from the calligraphic intricacy of her most recent work — an indication that there are still plenty of pages from the history books awaiting rehabilitation.

Another artist trying to drag formalist sculpture into the 21st century is E Chen, who‘s responsible for a string of wildly dissimilar solo shows (Titanica; the untitled vegetable-and-coupling-torso scatter installation; the constantly re-configured No Strategy) at the Richard Telles Gallery. Chen’s latest conundrum is a project in the vault gallery at the Hammer Museum, a notoriously difficult space to negotiate.

Chen succeeds admirably in creating a site-specific response, building a wall that bisects the echoey lozenge, filling a cross section of the upper half of the gallery with cardboard boxes, carefully formed to follow the curved ceiling to a little over halfway before stopping abruptly, like a half-built bridge. Upon closer inspection, it can be seen that the building units are, in fact, standard cardboard packaging for a variety of mass-produced consumer items — dozens of coffee makers, desk lamps, roof vents, fans, fax machines, etc. — taken apart, turned inside out, and reassembled with discreet windows cut to reveal their respective appliances, still in residence.

At the far end of the room from this modular consumerist architectural folly is something even stranger — a robot that appears to be from a 1930s science-fiction movie, which, upon closer inspection, is also made of cardboard boxes. These boxes, however, are custom-designed to be constructed into this figure. And instead of the inert matte beige facades of the inverted packaging, the robot has a minty-green, specially printed outer skin, complete with fake dials, E Chen‘s corporate logo, recycling symbols, and elaborate illustrated multilingual instructions for the robot’s assembly.

Although it appears to be a mass-produced novelty item — a promotional gimmick for the video release of some retro sci-fi movie, maybe — it is actually a carefully crafted one-of-a-kind objet d‘art, mimicking a commodified abstraction of the human body, made from boxes but containing absolutely nothing. He seems ready to engage his counterpart — a wall engineered from containers with their alluring and informing exteriors turned inward, away from him, showing only the fragments of these incarcerated appliances designed to intersect ergonomically with a real human body — dials, keyboards and handles. Yet his clunky, clawlike appendages don’t fit the equipment, and he doesn‘t need any coffee.

Chen has taken the most universal sculptural units of our everyday experience, and with a slight but laborious transformation exposed their secret aesthetic identity, which is powerful enough to carry its own weight. In proceeding to apply the same unnerving operation to us, he has multiplied the work’s meaning exponentially, and recoded it into a sad and funny narrative tableau. Just in time for the holidays!

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